Editor’s Note: As first responders continued rescue efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi, United Methodists worked to provide comfort and shelter whenever possible. Conference communicators and others provided this information Aug. 31.
Shelter for the homeless in Mississippi
In the hours leading up to Hurricane Isaac’s landfall, the Rev. Paige Swaim-Presley, executive director of Seashore Mission in Biloxi, and Judy Longo, the lay assistant at Seashore Mission, were hard at work with their focus on the homeless of Biloxi, Miss.
The homeless are a segment of our population that we hear very little if anything about during a hurricane. Those that society calls homeless, Seashore Mission calls its congregation. “At the mission we do not ‘minister to’ we ‘minister with,’” says Swaim-Presley. Seashore Mission is a ministry of the Seashore District of the Mississippi Conference.
The staff members at the mission know the congregation they serve does not have access to media outlets and information regarding evacuation that the rest of the population takes for granted. It can take 24 to 36 hours to notify residents of tent cities in hidden wooded areas that they need to seek safe shelter. Government agencies often ask those needing transportation or shelter to register online, but that is not possible for the homeless.
Swaim-Presley smiled as she told of a call she received Sunday afternoon from Pam Taylor at First United Methodist Church in Biloxi. Taylor told Swaim-Presley that her church family wanted the Seashore Mission congregation to come to their church for shelter during the storm.
Seashore Mission’s congregation often doesn’t do well in public shelters. This act of kindness by the Biloxi family allowed Seashore Mission staff to focus on preparing post-storm food packets for the community.
Because of the partnership between the Biloxi church and Seashore Mission, 48 homeless individuals rode out the storm with seven volunteers from the church as well as Swaim-Presley and Longo. First United Methodist Church provided meals, a worship service, games, love, care and the heart of Christ to the Seashore Mission congregation.
As Isaac with its wind and rain becomes a memory to the Gulf Coast, the ministry of Seashore Mission continues. The congregation members still will deal with the daily storm of hopelessness that affects the homeless. The mission serves 100 different individuals each week — about 75 a day — with meals, laundry service, job placement help, assistance with medical and mental health care and a place to be loved and accepted.
To help the ministry of the Seashore Mission homeless population recover, information about how to donate is posted on its Facebook page or people can donate directly through the mission’s webpage. The Seashore Mission congregation needs sleeping bags, tarps, water and undergarments. Other needs they may have after the storm and how to best minister with the congregation will be posted on the Facebook page.
– Susanne Gill, a special correspondent for the Mississippi Annual (regional) Conference
Louisiana assessing damage as it deals with floodwaters
Louisiana Annual Conference leaders are still assessing damage from Hurricane Isaac.
Some of the most serious flooding from heavy rains occurred in the city of LaPlace in St. John the Baptist Parish, about 30 miles northwest of New Orleans. More than 3,500 residents were evacuated from the parish, many of whom were sent to shelters in Baton Rouge and Alexandria.
The First United Methodist Church in LaPlace was reported to have had three feet of floodwater, said the Rev. Regina Hickman. “I have had to go on local news reports for that information because I have not been able to access the church, myself. The roadways around the church are still flooded,” she said.
As sad as Hickman is about the condition of the church building, her biggest concern is for about half of the members of her congregation who have water in their homes. Many have been evacuated. “Some actually had to be rescued. Many of them are in Alexandria, but we are scattered all over (the state),” said Hickman, who is trying to contact each of her members through cell phones and social media.
Another major concern for the state is the possibility of flooding from a compromised dam at Lake Tangipahoa in southern Mississippi. Officials in Louisiana and Mississippi are watching and waiting after a “controlled release” to relieve pressure on the dam. If suddenly breached, rushing waters from the dam have the potential to affect more than 60,000 people living along the Tangipahoa River, which flows south through Louisiana. A massive evacuation effort has taken place to remove potential flooding victims.
Reports of other damage included the steeple of Gretna United Methodist Church, which was toppled by winds that gusted in excess of 85 miles an hour as Hurricane Isaac hit the New Orleans area. Rainwater entering the sanctuary left two to three inches of water, said the Rev. Tim Smith.
Smith and a seven–member volunteer team visiting Haiti — which was in Isaac’s path a few days earlier — were able to leave the island and fly to Miami on Aug. 27. The team drove to Pensacola but waited to drive back to Gretna until Thursday because of Hurricane Isaac’s arrival in Louisiana.
The Rev. Mike McLaurin, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Ponchatoula, reported that a tree slammed through the church parsonage, damaging several bedrooms. The Ponchatoula church — as well as several other United Methodist churches in cities located along the Tangipahoa River — are at risk from floodwaters.
First United Methodist Church in Slidell escaped flooding, but experienced high water that came within inches of entering church facilities. Slidell, on the northeast shore of Lake Pontchartrain, was greatly damaged by Hurricane Katrina just seven years ago.
Newly elected Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, formerly the head of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, is moving to the Louisiana episcopal residence in Baton Rouge. She will travel next week with conference leaders and disaster response personnel to assess damages in hard-hit New Orleans, Grand Isle and cities in Plaquemines Parish.
Conference Emergency Response teams are ramping up and will go to affected areas once assessments are made.
Local churches are already responding.
First United Methodist Church in Pineville, through its congregational care ministry, made contact with homebound members to assess any needs after the storm. “We used our social media networking and neighborhood networks to assess any church member needs,” said the Rev. Ricky Willis.
The church also worked with local agencies and area churches to assess community needs and to reach out to more than 2,000 evacuees taken to the Alexandria area from flooded areas in the southern part of the state.
“We responded by delivering five large boxes and five large duffel bags full of shoes that were greatly needed. The church is also collecting funds and children’s toys and clothes. Like so many other churches in the Louisiana Conference, we are reaching out to help those who have been so deeply affected,” Willis said.
United Methodist Wesley Foundation students in Baton Rouge helped make sandbags before the storm and helped with debris removal on Louisiana State University’s campus. Members of the group volunteered Friday morning at Hope Ministries — a United Methodist agency — distributing food and water to Baton Rouge residents affected by the storm.
– Betty Backstrom, the director of communications for the Louisiana Annual (regional) Conference
According to Jay Rollins, director of marketing and communications for UMCOR, Internet is still down for the whole country. The field office has been trying to reach the eastern portion of the country for updates and assessments.
With the slow movement of the storm, accurate assessments have been difficult to obtain. The Rev. Tom Hazelwood, who heads UMCOR’s U.S. disaster response, has been in constant contact with disaster-response coordinators in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. “We expect requests for emergency grants in the coming days as well as the deployment of early response teams,” Rollins said.
At the UMCOR Sager Brown Depot in Baldwin, La., executive director Kathy Kraiza reported that they are still in lockdown mode and under a curfew. On the campus, one electric pole that feeds the RV park is down. One building sustained minor damage, and many tree limbs and debris are scattered around. Otherwise, the depot is fine and has power.
How to help
United Methodists are anxious to help survivors of Isaac. UMCOR’s website offers updates, information on preparing cleaning buckets and details on donating to disaster relief through UMCOR.